Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is abundance enough?

John Paul Lederach, a Menonite theologian, activist, and professor of peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has said that the main reasons why peacebuilding initiatives undertaken by the US military don't succeed is because we do not keep in mind the nature of the peace we want when waging war. Rather, we are caught trying to end what we feel are injustice and tyranny without a regard for what might come because of our disruptions. This is evident in the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are protracted, in the way we will be leaving behind unstable places while claiming rhetorically that "the mission has been accomplished".

These are deep thoughts reflective on the culture we live in. For given all of the knowledge we've accumulated, our focus is always the immediate next step, and not the outcome or the impact. When everything is linear and pointing upwards, we lose track of the end, and all that becomes important is a movement away from the past. So we feel compelled to take down dictators by going in and taking down a statue, with little regard for cultural history, ethnic tensions, religious diversity, political aspirations, and ecological conditions. What if the peace we wanted to build in the Middle East was durable and resilient, and such that the need to arm various groups in the future would be non-existent? What institutions would we need to build? How might we leverage what already exists? How would people need to behave?

The same influence of ends on means is translatable to thinking ecologically. We have this notion that ecomodernism, the "greening" of technology, the "free-market" will solve our ecological problems. (When it comes down to it, the powerful nations still can't decide whether to help out nations that will be severely impacted by climate change caused by the powerful.) All we need to do is create an abundance of everything, especially of "clean" energy, and everything will be okay. Limitlessness in the face of finiteness. But in an abundant world, will abundance be enough? And if so, do the steps we take today change in any measure? I would argue that they do, and drastically.

The fact is that many of us already lead abundant lives. (Of course much of that abundance has come from degrading other places.) We are very privileged. We are surrounded by an abundance of information, an abundance of energy and fuel, an abundance of food, an abundance electronics, an abundance of opportunity. But our abundance has led to an abundance of landfills. It has led to an atmosphere abundant with greenhouse gases, and waters abundant with fracking waste. Abundance comes from an unappreciation of what we have, with the added blow of then degrading the world we live in. As I have written previously, we then try to "buy" back what we lost already. A simple reflection on these realities would suggest that, if the end--an abundant future--justified the means--ecomodernism--then many of us are there already. We just need to be satisfied. Maybe then we'll leave a little more room in the world for others to meet their needs. Maybe then we'll open up a little more space in our lives to be more reflective, and be more helpful to others--the non-human world included--rather than oppressive.


  1. Darshan, Great post! I agree that abundance is both ideologically and materially problematic. The ideology of abundance contributes to insatiability. Materially, it contributes to the manifold ecological problems that you have described. What on Earth would it take for privileged people to stop craving stuff?

  2. Hi there!

    I apologise for not getting back to you sooner...I have been focusing on my dissertation for the past few weeks. Your last question is very important to consider. In all that I have heard, it seems that most people talk about "happiness". The struggle comes with how we have defined what happiness is. I was listening to an episode of On Being in which neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin was discussing how different ways of defining happiness lead to incredibly different personal and social outcomes. From the things I have read, it seems as though the main arguments we come up with to respond to your question rely on different definitions of something like "happiness"...definitions that would be considered wishy-washy for a materially-addicted culture.